Manchester Fringe 2012: Storm Mine

Posted: July 31 2012 in Doctor Who, Manchester Fringe 2012, Review, Science Fiction
Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester, 29 July 2012

Starring: Kate Millest (Blayes), Morag Peackock (V23), Sean Mason (Chief Mover), Marlon Solomon (Iago), Ben Patterson (Commander). Writer: Daniel O’MahonyDirector: Sam Al-Hamandi. ProducerGareth Kavanagh.

Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2012 came full circle with a full cast dramatisation of Daniel O’Mahony‘s Kaldor City audio play Storm Mine at the Lass O’Gowrie pub. This play had formed the second part of the opening diptych when Paul Darrow performed this and Robots of Death at the Premier performance.

Storm Mine dispenses with the opening prologue of both the Premiere and the audio play as Elska Blayes (an excellent Kate Millest, given ample chance to display her range) awakens on another Sandminer, uncertain how she got there, 18 months after the conclusion of Robots of Death.

The excision of the prologue is a good move, I think: the opening dialogue between Blayes and Iago (now apparently a disembodied voice in Blayes’ head) reveals a much more antagonistic relationship between the two that is barely hinted at in Robots of Death, and they also allude to a violent confrontation between them which does not seem to match the resigned murder-suicide that concluded the previous play. We can imagine the two of them having had further amoral, posthumous adventures in the intervening 18 months even if Blayes does not recall them.

Marlon Solomon’s chilling Iago is closer to Paul Darrow’s character here, a full-on psychopathic presence with a twisted Buddhist philosophy:

IAGO: When you set out upon a journey, kill everyone you happen upon: kill your friends and your parents and your children, should you meet them on the road. Kill the topmasters, the firstmasters, and the holy men; only that way can you become free. Only when you have killed everyone will you become truly enlightened.

Gone is his sense of vulnerability: what does he have to lose if he is already dead?

Most of the crew of this Sandminer have apparently been killed in an accident and the communications with Kaldor City are cut off, the Sandminer now unable to reach its final destination and condemned to wander the desert like a sandcrawling Flying Dutchman. Blayes is invited by the Chief Mover (Sean Mason) to meet the ‘Survivors Club’ which appears to consist of just himself and the Commander (a very funny Ben Patterson). A third human survivor, the Chief Fixer, is absent, though her robot, V23 (Morag Peackock), now assigned to Blays, is present.

The play is, I think, a better presentation of O’Mahoney’s script than the audio, despite the bigger name cast of the original. Kate Millest’s Blayes is much more credible assassin than Tracey Russell’s. When Darrow’s Iago refers to Chief Mover as displaying all the hallmarks of a serial sex-killer in the audio it seems to come from nowhere: John Leeson’s Chief Mover just seams overly polite. Sean Mason’s Mover, on the other hand, is a predator with a distinctly unhealthy interest in Blayes.

Morag Peackock performs V23 with make-up rather than a mask. Although the voices of the robots in Robots of Death had been supplied offstage it would not make sense to repeat this for a single robot, and a mask would have muffled Morag’s voice; but it is ultimately an artistic choice rather than a technical one. There are sequences where V23 takes centre stage – notably when she recalls a dream she has had – where her not-entirely unhuman delivery draws us in. It’s an impressively restrained performance.

Signal from Noise

Yes, but what does it mean? Well, no one said it was going to be easy…

In my review of David Bordwell‘s Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1989) I drew on Bordwell’s distinctions between four levels of meaning, each at ‘higher’ levels of abstraction: ‘referential‘ (what happens within the story), ‘explicit‘ (an abstract conceptual meaning, or the ‘point’ the author is trying to make), ‘implicit‘ (covert or symbolic meanings, or ‘themes’), and ‘symptomatic‘ or ‘repressed‘ meanings the writer may not be consciously aware. Generally speaking most audience members agree on the ‘referential’ meaning of a text (what they saw and heard happen), and to a lesser extent the explicit meaning (what the author was trying to say); ‘implicit’ meaning becomes more a matter of debate – and can keep fandom arguing for decades – while ‘symptomatic’ readings are generally the province of academics. Storm Mine is that unique beast, a text in which the implicit and symptomatic interpretations are actually easier to determine than the referential – because although I have some idea what the play means the audience won’t necessarily agree on what has actually happened! 

I used the phrase ‘signal from noise’ in my review of the Fringe production of The Year of the Sex Olympics where I associated it with the ‘Texas Sharpshooter’ fallacy. There are several psychological phenomena associated with this tendency: apophenia, the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in apparently random or meaningless data, and pareidolia the perception of images or sounds in random stimuli (e.g. seeing a face in rock formations of the Cydonia Mensae on Mars, or hearing the voice of the Devil when you play a Heavy Metal record backwards). This isn’t to say patterns aren’t sometimes ‘real’ – the ability to pick out the pattern of a predator’s face peering through the grass of the savannah is what separates your ancestors from those who did not live long enough to have descendents of their own – but where there is no real order your mind will impose it.

Many writers have explored these phenomena, especially writers of postmodern fiction and science fiction: Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris (1961) and Don DeLillo‘s Ratner’s Star (1976) are classic examples demonstrating human failure to understand extraterrestrial phenomena because of our tendency to impose anthropomorphic patterns gets in the way. DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and William Gibson‘s Pattern Recognition (2003) are also based on the phenomena of divining patterns from noise, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ Watchmen (1986) also explores the human capacity for creating meaning: the character Rorschach, whose mask represents the blots of the famous psychological test, is almost a living embodiment of apophenia, and in one memorable sequence Silk Spectre teaches Doctor Manhatten, who sees patterns but ascribes no meaning to them, how to see again as humans see.

Cult TV shows like Patrick McGoohan‘s The Prisoner (1967-68), David Lynch and Mark Frost‘s Twin Peaks (1990-92) and Lost (2004-10) also successfully exploit the audience’s capacity to create meaning for themselves by presenting an excess of textual cues that cannot be reduced to any single interpretation even if they do not explicitly explore the themes of apophenia itself.

There are no coincidences, but sometimes the pattern is more obvious.

The essential features of an ‘apophenic’ or ‘pareidolic text’ – I may have just invented those terms – are an excess of textual cues (characters, symbols, allusions) from which patterns can be made and interpretation drawn, and a sense of repetition that suggests these patterns are more than just coincidence. O’Mahony’s script makes many allusions to both repeated patterns and to noise: Iago admires the patterns of shadow on the X-ray of Blayes’ skull and suggests her experiences are merely the result of randomly firing neurons in a dying brain. The entertainment screens and communications devices are full of white noise and when Blayes asks Iago can anyone else hear him he responds ”Yes, if they listen to the static”. The Chief Mover has listened to the last message between the Sandminer over and over again but his interpretation blinds him to the actual words themselves: ”We are all in this together”. The Commander of this Ship of Fools  talks of the Aleph, a fixed point from which everything is visible; Jewish mysticis relate Aleph to the element of air, and the Fool of the major arcana of the tarot deck. He listens to the noise of the wind and talks of the repeated course through which the Sandminer travels: a figure eight (8), or infinity () ”depending on how you look at it”. We also have allusions to the Knight on a chess board traveling around and around. The play is also concept-heavy: it introduces themes such as evolution without fully exploring them. But this excess is all data that can be transformed into meaning.

So Storm Mine is a self-consciously ‘apophenic’ or ‘pareidolic’ text who’s implicit or symptomatic meaning is the search for meaning itself. Whether the story is set in Blayes’ dying mind, in the electric dreams of V23, or the gestalt unconscious of the fleshy tree the Fendahl has created from the Kaldorian race is indeterminable – and ultimately irrelevant. There is no ‘Aleph’ from which the play can be comprehended referentially. It depends on the viewpoint you take, and how you choose to look at it.

And we are all in it together.

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